The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

12 Jan

Amazon‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’

These are the famous opening words of a treatise which, from the French Revolutionary Terror of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, has been interpreted as a blueprint for totalitarianism.  But in The Social Contract Rousseau (1712-78) was at pains to stress the connection between liberty and law, freedom and justice.  Arguing that the ruler is the people’s agent, not its master, he claimed that laws derived from the people’s General Will.  Yet in preaching subservience to the impersonal state he came close to defining freedom as the recognition of necessity.

I’m no expert but from previous brief sojourns into the world of social political writing –  in the form of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – Rousseau diverges from both of his English counterparts on the subject with his own model on the titular social contract.

As a classic work of political philosophy that still has merit for the reader today, I found this treatise to be a fascinating and complex work, both making a lot of sense but also coming across with a lot of naivety as well, perhaps the latter is due to hindsight or just that now we have a better understanding of global history.

Unsurprisingly for a French writer, this is a book based squarely in the corner of Republicanism and what the ideal state would be like with the freedom for all within a social and legislative structure.  The collectivism of the general will above the individual needs and desires would see every person participate in chosen law and civic organisation which would ultimately make them free.

There are many instances in which the book pushed for seismic events that changed the world not long after Rousseau’s death, the abolition of slavery and the French Revolution have been logical steps upon his path.  Interestingly he didn’t advocate equal right or even citizenship for women, thinking them inferior to men, it seems to be truly free each sex must play their part as chosen by man, an inherent flaw by today’s standards and one that is certainly of its time and deserves to stay there.

The will of the people is often wrong or easily led and whilst this book can seem like a call to a more Athenian style democracy, there are also elements that hint of a more totalitarian nature.  Giving up all rights to the state which acts for the good of the people is one thing bit when debate and common sense get lost, the use of propaganda to sway public consensus leads to subjugation of all but the few and hate of certain races or groups.   To see these devastating effects one needs only look around the world today or back to recent history for plenty (too many) of examples.

There are pages of solid, logical ideas here but then there are also parts where Rousseau’s ideas fall flat,  it’s a contradictory mix but makes for a compelling read.  Although the concepts for the 21st century are – as to be expected – dated, it is a most unequivocally thought-provoking read that still has plenty of merit today, for all those who have any interest in the Enlightenment or political philosophy in general.  As a casual reader and habitual dabbler in all things bookish, I appreciated it for the changes it helped inspire and the place it holds as a defining historical text.


Posted by on 12/01/2016 in Classics, History, Philosophy, Politics


Tags: , , , , , ,

34 responses to “The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  1. Jill Weatherholt

    12/01/2016 at 19:00

    Great review, Ste J. Kudos to you for dabbling.


    • Ste J

      12/01/2016 at 19:04

      Thank you, I love the challenge of reading such books as this and realising how important they actually were through the words. I look forward to reading more such books, I will have to see what is hiding on my shelves…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love, Life and Whatever

    12/01/2016 at 20:06

    I am floored by this selection. Picking up Rosseau in itself demands immense attention. An influential thinker and philosopher, I read very little of him in regard to romanticism in English literature, but I truly admire some of his treatises. Kudos to you for going through his work and providing a balanced view adroitly.


    • Ste J

      12/01/2016 at 20:18

      It took me more than a few hours to write this one, for a short review, I found it very challenging to write even without going into the complexities of his arguments. He does take a lot of attention to follow, his writing style didn’t help but it was very rewarding and has got me in the mood for something else of this ilk. I am glad I could give an accurate overview here. Philosophy is something I always feel I should read more of so hopefully this will be the springboard.


  3. Letizia

    12/01/2016 at 20:11

    Another compelling read! IT could have done with some more editing or perhaps it just sounds outdated to our more modern ears but the basic ideas are quite interesting. Another book I should return to as it’s been ages since I read it. You’re taking me down memory lane these days!


    • Ste J

      12/01/2016 at 20:23

      It is always a challenge reading the older books, especially something non fiction but it was really rewarding despite the way it was written. I enjoyed it immensely and taking you down memory lane is a great side effect, I wonder if my next choice will carry on my run!


      • Letizia

        12/01/2016 at 20:29

        I always look forward to hearing about your reads! I’m about to read ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ A collection of short stories that my book club selected. I like short stories so am curious to see what they are about and how they work as a collection.


        • Ste J

          12/01/2016 at 20:37

          I’ve just had a look at that book and it sounds like it has the potential to be really good, I shall be most interested in how you find it. I’m a sucker for anything with a cassette on it. I shall make sure I keep my books varied and my socks even more so!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. shadowoperator

    12/01/2016 at 21:38

    You give me lots of praise sometimes, but really, I’m just an artsy-fartsy compared to you (you’re the real intellectual, and I’ve got something or other by Rousseau, but I’ve never yet read it, and I think it’s packed away somewhere). Your curiosity teaches you better than I could ever do! And, takes me along with you, which I really appreciate.


    • Ste J

      13/01/2016 at 11:14

      I hate having things packed away but like you I still have a bunch of book boxes that I have no room for. Curiosity has served me well over these last 10-12 years and I’m always conscious of how much more there still is to read. I like people coming with me to all the places my book travels take me, otherwise it would be rather lonely, like it used to be before I started blogging. I really like popping up in the last book place you expect as well, I like being whimsical that way. I think we may need to have a thumb war over who is more intellectual for I certainly think it is you!


  5. clarepooley33

    13/01/2016 at 00:13

    Thanks for the review Ste. This is a book I might read one day but it also appears to be a book that I’d find almost impossible to write a review of. I just wouldn’t know where to start. I take my imaginary hat off to you!


    • Ste J

      13/01/2016 at 11:09

      I read this book last year and added my notes then left it for months, then wrote it over a couple of days, it was a challenge and did require a lot of redrafting and thought before I was happy with it though. It is a good book but one that you have to be in the mood for and stay in the mood for as well. What type of imaginary hat do you have on (or off as it were)? I imagine you in a fez.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lucy

    13/01/2016 at 09:15

    At some point there will be a question on this on University Challenge, and you’ll scream the answer at the telly.


    • Ste J

      13/01/2016 at 11:06

      I may answer it in the style of one of the Young Ones though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lucy

        14/01/2016 at 07:22

        I would expect nothing less 🙂


  7. Liz

    13/01/2016 at 16:10

    So interesting that this should come up at the moment – thanks for this compelling review which has caused me to add this book to my ‘broader’ 2016 list. I seem to be drawn to reading material concerning French wars at the moment – I already have Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety on the list. And I am determined to find out more than I currently superficially know (which is mainly based around the 1812 Overture!) about the Napoleonic Wars. Should be fun!


    • Ste J

      14/01/2016 at 11:04

      Excellent, if I could get a job adding books to people’s lists I would consider myself the luckiest chappie alive. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man has some interesting things to say on the French Revolution and its goings on which I found really interesting. War and Peace as well has some good bits about the Napoleonic wars if you have the time for such a mammoth book that is, I found it well worth the time invested. I couldn’t get on with Mantel’s Wolf Hall so have left her alone since. I used to have the 1812 Overture as my alarm, nothing beats cannons going off in a morning to get one out of bed on a cold dauy hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Liz

        14/01/2016 at 16:43

        LOL! I love the idea of the 1812 as an alarm! 😀


  8. angela

    14/01/2016 at 04:32

    A little light reading for the new year… good for you! I recall reading bits of this book for some philosophically focused class with a bent on modernity. I wish I could remember more, but recalling philosophical discourse often escapes me because I only understand it when drowning in it!


    • Ste J

      14/01/2016 at 10:47

      I do love a good beach read hehe. I’m always in awe of those people who can quote at length from such works. Like you I understand it whilst ‘in the mix’ so to speak and afterwards rely on the general ideas that I gleaned from it. It does sound like a good reason for a second read though.


  9. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    14/01/2016 at 07:16

    You’ve my reverence, Ste J! I started reading this, but honestly, found it a monumental task to go through the depth of his writings. I just wonder what a versatile reader you are and, how smoothly you have presented the ideas here in this review! Kudos…


    • Ste J

      14/01/2016 at 10:54

      I have the urge to learn about all things and read as much as I can, I can’t help but bounce around and have a natural curiosity about everything. There was a lot going on in this book and I had to let it settle after I read it, by a good three or so months, with only occasional notes written before I really started the review for it. It was a challenge but I like to keep pushing myself and learning and then sharing, I am always impresed by anybody who picks up the groundbreaking works and I’m glad I’m not alone in doing so.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Andrea Stephenson

    15/01/2016 at 22:15

    I seem to recall touching on Rousseau when I studied Women’s Studies and haven’t been left with a positive impression – obviously for reasons you mentioned here about his views on women, so it’s interesting to read your review of all his ideas.


    • Ste J

      16/01/2016 at 09:17

      It is strange to find somebody who was very forward thinking fall back on the views of the day in regards to women and their role in society. It makes you wonder how short sighted we are being at the moment…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Liz Dexter

    16/01/2016 at 21:26

    Impressive reading – reminds me of my 6th form reading diary when I read this, Candide, the History of Western Philosophy, etc. etc. …


    • Ste J

      17/01/2016 at 11:03

      Candide was enjoyable, I need to review that at some point as well. Your 6th form days were a lot more well read than mine, although the low point was the last act of The Merchant of Venice, I swear Shakespeare must have been paid by the word for that one, it’s the only reason I can think of having it.


  12. Jatin

    16/01/2016 at 22:35

    I just encountered your blog and I am perplexed by seeing the number of books you have read. I managed to read 50 books last year but still I feel that I don’t retain a major proprtion of what I’ve read. Do you have any insights on how to read effectively?


    • Ste J

      17/01/2016 at 11:31

      I have no idea how to read more effectively, it’s just a matter of concentration on what you read, I find keeping the books I love in plain view helps me recall them better, as I subconsciously think about them all the time. That’s my theory anyway, that and writing about them always helps.


  13. Resa

    17/01/2016 at 21:37

    I’m glad you love to read everything, that you are not a literary snob. I’ve learned a lot visiting here, even if I haven’t, & probably won’t read all the books you have.
    I’ve been wanting to read The American Constitution & Bill Of Rights for some time. Now, because of this review, I have found it online in U.S. gov’t archives.
    I believe it will help me understand more of what I already understand a bit of.


    • Ste J

      17/01/2016 at 21:48

      I like to think that I read some books so you don’t have to, be they good or bad ones. I’m glad you could learn something from my humble site, it encourages me to keep writing and reading. You have a nice choice of reading material, to be informed of key foundations of your country is to better understand it, I shall have to get around to reading those at some point as well. So much good stuff to read, makes me happy.


      • Resa

        17/01/2016 at 21:53

        It makes me happy too!


  14. Aquileana

    16/02/2016 at 02:46

    Rousseau was my favorite writer and thinker from The French Age of Lights…
    I have always admired his positive perspective with regard to the Civil Society… at the same time, I think that Hobbes was far much more accurate when he mentioned the violent and wild characteristics of Men before they enter Society so to speak… the progression Rousseau highlights is much more hopeful and I would like to fully agree with him, sigh…
    Thanks so much for the great post and interesting reading… All my best wishes to you, dear Ste. Aquileana 😀


    • Ste J

      17/02/2016 at 20:10

      Realism over idealism wins every time, although I appreciate Rousseau’s attempts. Hobbes and More are on my list to read this year hopefully as well. As ever thank you for reading my friend, I always enjoy your visits.

      Liked by 1 person


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